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‘Any Further Interference Is Likely to Be Disastrous’

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Interrogating the planet's most important climate thinkers.

On September 23, the United Nations opened its Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, swept through thousands of cities worldwide — more than 4 million protesters around the world, marching out of anger that so little has been done. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer is publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful.)

James Lovelock turned 100 this year and celebrated by publishing a new book — on artificial intelligence. But he is known as much more of an old-fashioned scientist and compares himself to Darwin and Faraday in that he also likes to work alone, outside of institutions. Nevertheless, though you may not know his name, he is among the most influential scientists of the 20th century, having developed — and then, over the course of decades of writing, refined and refashioned — what is called the “Gaia theory,” or the principle that Earth’s ecosystem is a single, living, self-regulating entity. In early September, just a few months after his birthday, I met Lovelock one morning at his home on Chesil Beach in southern England, where we talked about nuclear power, his hope that AI might save the planet from catastrophic warming, and just how to integrate the disruptions and disturbances of climate change into a Gaia worldview.

At 100 years old, you’ve been alive for something like 90 percent or more of all the carbon emissions that have ever been produced from the burning of fossil fuels.
Exactly. Well, I hope you don’t blame me for that.

But the world really has changed an enormous amount in your lifetime.
Yes. I grew up from 6 till about 14 years old in an area of London which was probably more polluted than anywhere in the world. Particularly vile air. It was so thick that not only could you not see a hand in front of your face, but people were dying on railroad platforms because they couldn’t see where the platform ended. That’s coal for you.

On climate, your views have changed over time, I know. You were for a period more alarmed, and then you grew a little bit less alarmed. How do you see the big picture at the moment? Where do you think we are, and where do you think we’re heading?
The big picture is that everything is continuing more or less as predicted by climate scientists. But the exact course, of course, depends on all sorts of things.

But taking seriously the main proposition of Gaia theory, if the whole Earth system is a kind of living, self-regulating entity of which human activity is also a natural part and one we shouldn’t be trying to exclude, what is concerning about climate change? Why shouldn’t we just accept that as being part of the same system?
Up to a point, we have to, and we do, wrongly. I mean, if you’re an ordinary man with a family, you’ve got to have an income. You’ve got to work for somebody on something and that determines what you do, rather than any environmental concern.

But thinking more globally, people like you and me, who think about........

© Daily Intelligencer